by Perry Meisel
Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. By Howard Sounes. Illustrated. 527 pp. New York: Grove Press. $27.50.
As a kid, I thought God looked like my grandfather; as an adult, I figure he looks like Bob Dylan. Dylan not only joined folk music and electric blues to produce modern rock 'n' roll; he also joined the traditions of the blues with those of literature. No wonder Dylan criticism is besotted with tendentiousness. No one knows where to start. Even biographies of Dylan come at a price. Anthony Scaduto's Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography (1971) is polite to a studious fault, embarrassed by its own potential for overstatement, like the first guest at a party. Robert Shelton's No Direction Home (1986), which benefited from Shelton's friendship with Dylan, does not benefit from Shelton's critical powers, which are suspended in favor of narrative. Bob Spitz's often magnificent Dylan (1989) also lets critical formulation slip away even when it is in hand, while Clinton Heylin's punctilious Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades (1991) sometimes crashes trying to find a ''real'' Dylan amid the masks that define him.
Now comes Howard Sounes's Down the Highway. Sounes matches none of his predecessors in elegance, but he offers information that, in sheer quantity, supersedes prior accounts. Although there is no discography, Sounes, a British journalist and the author of a biography of Charles Bukowski, is a tireless schlepper of facts. Most have been gathered through interviews with friends, family and, most important, other musicians.
Sounes's sleuthing, however, yields only minor results, chief among them the discovery of a child fathered by Dylan in 1986. Nor does he add much detail to Dylan's conversion to Christianity in 1979. His real success lies in his re-creation of Dylan's recording sessions and rehearsals for tours. To his credit, Sounes gives almost as much time to later albums like Blood on the Tracks (1975), Shot of Love (1981) and even Empire Burlesque (1985) as he does to classics like Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). No matter the time or place, Dylan comes alive, strumming his guitar in a studio in Nashville or hurrying down MacDougal Street with the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind.
Born in 1941 as Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., Dylan grew up in comfortable surroundings. Both parents were musical, but the tone of family life grew somber when they moved north to the mining town of Hibbing to live with Bob's grandmother after his father got polio and lost his job with Standard Oil. Sounes provides a vivid account of Dylan's boyhood by evoking the grim beauty of the Minnesota Iron Range and the contrast with it provided by the Southern rock 'n' roll that Dylan heard on the radio late at night. Major influences for his electric guitar bands in high school included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. Dylan's teenage rock 'n' roll escapades have not escaped the attention of his earlier biographers, particularly Spitz and Shelton, but Sounes presents them in such detail that, even more than in prior accounts, we fall in love first with a boy who is already plugged in.
As a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959, Dylan heard an Odetta record and – reversing what Muddy Waters did in 1944 – traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic one. After growing success as a folk performer in Greenwich Village beginning in 1961, in 1965 Dylan marched onstage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric band. He was, famously, booed. Sounes's focus on Dylan's teenage bands makes this incident look different. To speak of Dylan's roots as folk is erroneous: the roots that really clutch are rock 'n' roll.
But collapsing one myth does not prevent Sounes from succumbing to another. While he pooh-poohs the severity of Dylan's highly publicized motorcycle accident near Woodstock, N.Y. in the summer of 1966 (he has spoken to the doctor with whom Dylan stayed for six weeks), Sounes nonetheless regards it as a ''blessing'' that allowed Dylan to withdraw in a time of imaginative need. Beginning with The Basement Tapes (1975), the story becomes a familiar one. Moments of decline are followed by moments of redemption. Dylan is suddenly reduced to size. Dubious albums like Slow Train Coming (1979) are redeemed by less phlegmatic ones like Infidels (1983). The wider curve of Dylan's career follows suit. It is a story of Dylan losing his way, feeling ''guilt'' and, eventually, becoming a mensch again. He regains his form in 1997 with the triumphal Time Out of Mind.
Dylan is not, however, merely the Elizabethan stage Jew Sounes wishes him to be, despite his ''hooked nose,'' as Sounes puts it, and sympathy for Jesus. Sounes's book has a second story to tell, besides its Christian romance. Rather than spiritual melodrama, there is Dylan simply going about his business. ''He really hadn't changed all that much,'' the folk singer Dave Van Ronk says about a visit from Dylan in 1989. ''He was as nervous as ever.'' Even Dylan's Aunt Ethel agrees: ''He's very unassuming, and he's very quiet. As he has been all his life.'' Nor has his music changed in either passion or instinctive commitment to experimentation. As the drummer Jim Keltner says, Dylan's music is always extraordinary, even in the Christian period, when Dylan crosses generic boundaries again, this time into gospel and soul rather than the blues. He can, as Sounes acknowledges, ''go on indefinitely''; Dylan and his touring bands are ''Gypsy troubadours.'' As the critic Greil Marcus has suggested, Dylan's is a carnival world of hustlers and rustlers who cannot be pinned down, not unlike the motley crew of Melville's Confidence Man.
Sounes comes closest to rendering the uncanny juxtapositions that define his subject when his two stories of Dylan cross in his reader's mind. The effect, however, is unintentional. Unlike his newest biographer, Dylan himself is endlessly preoccupied by strategic contrast – of voice, of influence, of musical and poetic protocol – and by the way it provides structure for experience. The song ''Not Dark Yet,'' from Time Out of Mind, is a surpassing example of a privileged moment dependent upon its own ruin for its beauty. Dylan's surest analogue among poets is not T. S. Eliot but Thomas Hardy, just as his musical anxiety of influence is not, ultimately, Woody Guthrie or Muddy Waters or even Buddy Holly but Louis Armstrong. While Sounes has added a wealth of new information to Dylan studies, he has a tin ear when it comes to orchestrating what he has found.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, June 10, 2001